JOHN FLYNN: OUT FOR ACTION (Shock Cinema nº 29, fall 2005, pp. 26-29+46)
by Harvey F. Chartrand
Veteran director John Flynn is known for his taut, economical and well-scripted action pictures. He is certainly one of the most underrated directors in crime cinema today.
A protégé of Hollywood legends Robert Wise and J. Lee Thompson, Flynn learned his craft well by observing these masters at work, before tackling his first solo directing assignment in 1967 - The Sergeant, in which Rod Steiger gave an anguished performance as a macho Army sergeant who is horrified by his own feelings of attraction to another man (John Phillip Law). Sadly, this dark and courageous drama has yet to be released on VHS, let alone DVD!
Flynn’s second film, the suspense story The Jerusalem File (1972), is equally obscure. Perhaps for political reasons, this exotic thriller about an idealistic American archaeology student (Bruce Davison) caught in the Arab-Israeli crossfire, is rarely seen on TV. Nor has The Jerusalem File been issued on VHS or DVD, despite the presence in supporting roles of Nicol Williamson, Donald Pleasence and Ian Hendry. (Zabriskie Point’s Daria Halprin also appears here in her final film role.) Set in the Holy City after the Six Day War, the film is one of the few Hollywood productions to have been shot entirely on location in and around Jerusalem.
Flynn went on to direct 15 more pictures, including the hardboiled The Outfit (1973), praised as one of the best films based on a Richard Stark “Parker novel” by the author himself, and the grim revenge saga Rolling Thunder (1977), which so impressed the young director Quentin Tarantino that he named his short-lived film release company (Rolling Thunder Pictures) after it. Rolling Thunder also made Tarantino’s list of his top 25 favorite movies.
Since 1990, Flynn has kept busy making excellent low-budgeters for U.S. cable networks or the direct-to-video market. His last film to date is 2001’s Protection, a witness relocation drama with a twist, starring Stephen Baldwin, Peter Gallagher and a cast of Canadian supporting players.
According to film writer Matthew Wilder, John Flynn could give today’s neo-noir directors seminars in the beauties of haiku-like plainspokenness. Shock Cinema agrees. We talked to John Flynn in May.
Shock Cinema: How did you get started in the film business?
John Flynn: I was Robert Wise’s assistant. He hired me to do research on The Robert Capa Story. (This planned biopic of the famous photographer was never filmed. - Ed.) Later, Bob let me watch him work on the set. I was an apprentice on Odds Against Tomorrow, script supervisor on West Side Story, and second assistant director on Kid Galahad and Two for the Seesaw. Later, I worked as an assistant director on The Great Escape. I was also a second unit director on J. Lee Thompson’s What a Way to Go!
In 1966, Bob Wise set up a company to produce low-budget films that others would direct. The first property that Bob found was Dennis Murphy’s critically acclaimed novel The Sergeant. Bob asked me to direct. So I owe my directing career to Bob Wise - and to J. Lee Thompson, who mentored me on What a Way to Go!, Kings of the Sun and John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!
SC: Discuss your involvement in Kid Galahad (1962), a “boxing musical” starring Elvis Presley, Charles Bronson, Gig Young and Lola Albright.
JF: This was my first credit as an assistant director. One of my jobs was to make sure Elvis was happy, but he was easy to work with then, a really sweet guy. Charles Bronson always tried to act like a tough guy. You had to stand up to him and then he’d back off. Gig Young was a dream, one of the funniest human beings I ever met. He was always coming out with these great one-liners. Lola Albright was a very sweet, beautiful, professional woman, on the cusp of middle age, nearing the end of her career, as it turned out.
SC: You were an assistant director on The Great Escape (1963) - the best prisoner-of-war movie ever made. What did you learn from your seven-month association with action director John Sturges?
JF: I learned simplicity. John Sturges was one of the simplest shooters you’d ever want to see. He knew exactly where to place the cameras. Sturges was a very efficient, no-nonsense shooter and he was working without a script half the time. Writers would be flown in to Munich for rewrites every other week. Since we had no script, assistant directors had a hell of a time, because we had to call in all the actors, not knowing if we were going to use them or not.
It was a wonderful time in a Hollywood that no longer exists. The Mirisch Corporation sent over the same crew I worked with on Kid Galahad and Two for the Seesaw - everyone from grips to art directors to stunt guys. We were like a family. I can’t tell you how many times I hung out with Steve McQueen and James Coburn, all those guys… James Garner had a poker game every week at his house. I also got to know the English contingent: Donald Pleasence, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, and the Germans too - like Hannes Messemer, who gave an incredibly poignant performance as the German commandant. We worked together six days a week for seven months in Bavaria. Off the set, we dined together and we partied together.
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